England, Wales and Scotland section of International Socialist Alternative

UCU strikes: Fighting to defend higher education 

UCU picket line

On Valentine’s day, UCU members at 44 Universities resumed strike action in response to eye-watering cuts to USS pensions, with strike action running to 18th Feb. This will overlap with the resumption of strike action on the Four Fights campaign (Pay, Equality, Workload and Casualisation), taking place on 21st and 22nd of February and involving 68 branches, and there will be a further 3 day strike on the Four Fights from 28th Feb to 2nd March. This adds up to ten days of strike in total, with most branches on strike in both disputes. After this, the plan is to call ‘regional rolling strikes’ on the Four Fights.

It is essential that members and branches ensure that these strikes are powerful and well supported. We are up against intransigent employers who are determined to scrap pension benefits, continue their attacks on pay and maintain the insecure employment, gender and race inequality and sky high workloads that have come to characterise the sector. This could be the beginning of a long and bruising battle which we need to win.

These issues go hand in hand with other attacks on workers at the local level. However, employer attacks have also motivated strong local fightbacks, notably at the University of Liverpool where proposed redundancies were withdrawn after a magnificent program of strike action combined with a marking boycott. Goldsmiths and the RCA have also been fighting local disputes against job cuts. This is not limited to the UK: in the USA, Columbia University postgraduate instructors won a better contract with improved pay and benefits after ten weeks of strike.

Reunifying the Disputes

Despite the interconnected nature of the disputes, and despite repeated demonstrations by members that they want the disputes to remain linked, strike days have been called separately for the two disputes. Separate strike days reflect the majority of the union leadership’s prioritisation of the USS dispute over the Four Fights.

However, this is an incorrect approach. UCU was right to ballot for the two disputes simultaneously to strengthen turnout, and public messaging has repeatedly reflected the interconnected range of issues that members face. This is also clearly a better way of relating to students, who care about the impact on their education of workload, casualisation and inequality — and why employers have been keen to reduce these issues to solely pay and pensions. Furthermore, the union cannot win on pensions without the energy and militancy of the lowest paid and most exploited sections of the membership. 

It is clear that the union leadership hopes that a compromise deal can be reached at a key negotiation on USS on 22nd February. This is certainly possible if the strikes are powerful and disruptive, and UCU has put forward proposals to increase employer and employee contributions to protect pension benefits which the USS trustees have confirmed are workable. But given the entrenched position of the employers, we need to recognise that they will be unwilling to contribute more towards our pensions. It is quite possible they will offer nothing, and we should also be prepared to reject a bad deal as we did in 2018. We need to plan for sustained and intensive strike action on both disputes going well beyond 22nd February.

The disputes are integrally related, and clear wins on Four Fights can be achieved, such as agreed standards like 2 year minimum contracts, moving from hourly to fractional contracts, workload frameworks, and a pay raise, especially for those lower on the pay scale who are disproportionately non white and female. Not only that but if we were to get a deal on USS, the logical next step would be to argue that since our pensions are based on our pay, we should fight even harder for the Four Fights and a pay increase and continue striking. With the cost of living increase and price of energy currently spiking, plus the real terms pay cut that members have experienced, the need to fight on pay could not be clearer. 

However, while it is not yet clear what the UCU leadership means by ‘regional rolling strikes’, we can safely assume that this action will not be sufficient and will likely be seen as a de-escalation by the employers. This is not the intensive and escalating action that we need in order to win. Even worse, it seems that this tactic is motivated by a fear that we have not raised sufficient funds to provide strike pay. As we have explained previously, we cannot build strike action to fit the resources we have in the Fighting Fund, we need to raise funds and seek the solidarity of the wider labour movement to fit the level of industrial action that is necessary to win. 

We should feel confident about doing this. It is a huge boost for example that Unison members at 9 universities will be joining the strikes this time around, and we should look to build links at the local level with Unison members in response to this. We have also seen incredible examples of student solidarity, and it is clear that students blame employers for the disruption in the sector. For example, when UCL sabbatical officers refused to support the strikes, this was overturned by students in a referendum which saw the biggest turnout in the student unions history. 

Responding to Employer Threats 

This solidarity is much needed – employers are responding to strike notifications with aggressive and bullying punitive measures. Currently, employers at 6 Universities have threatened 100% pay deductions for action short of strike, with other employers threatening partial deductions. Not only this, UCEA, the employers body, has officially advised all employers to make similar punitive deductions. 

We have made clear in the past that we need to be prepared to respond to such threats by escalating our action. Bosses adopting these tactics can be forced back, as has been demonstrated by Cambridge UCU members and students. In response to united staff and student anger, Cambridge University has already been forced to withdraw the threat of 100% deductions. 

We need to put forward a national response to deductions however. Recently, the union leadership has shifted from a position of attempting to challenge deductions in the courts and is now advising branches to escalate strike action locally. That is a positive step and to be welcomed – but we cannot leave branches to do this on their own, particularly when so many branches are also calling for additional action as part of local disputes. What is needed is to prepare members and branches to build towards indefinite all-out strike action. 

Where Next for the Strikes?

We clearly need to escalate. If employers are threatening a lockout across the board with pay deductions for ASOS, and are not budging in negotiations, we will have to make the best of our current mandate and notify for more strike days. Given the lack of clarity from the union leadership on what the strategy will be going forward, we need branches and members to come together to develop a plan to escalate the action towards indefinite strikes and a marking boycott. 

This can and should coincide with reballoting on the disputes to extend our ballot window, which currently expires May 3. But we shouldn’t wait until May to begin these ballots. Instead, the anger and energy of members should be channelled into reballots beginning while we are mobilised on the picket lines. Furthermore, we should consider the possibility of holding our own ballot of members, perhaps online, instead of dealing with the rigmarole of electoral services yet again. This would technically be illegal, but if we could demonstrate through our own ballot the will of members to continue the struggles then we would be breaking the anti-union laws from a very strong political position. This is an idea that branches should be discussing now, and assessing whether there is member appetite to do this. 

Support the Meeting of Striking Branches 

We cannot rely on the current leadership of the union to make the correct calls going forward. That is why the Corona Contract campaign has produced this Open Letter calling for a national meeting of striking branches to discuss the way forward. 9 UCU branches have signed this letter, and many others have made similar demands and indicated that they would attend such a meeting.

There is clearly anger and frustration at the lack of strategic clarity coming from our elected leaders right now. Furthermore, at the time of writing the union leadership seems unwilling to engage with this. At an online branch consultation meeting last week, in response to branch delegates repeatedly asking for democratic votes to be taken, UCU Vice President Justine Mercer simply shut the meeting down – the digital equivalent of the Congress shutdown we saw in 2018. 

Activists have quite rightly complained about the bureaucratic Branch Delegate Meetings and consultations which have taken place, which have not been organised in the trade union tradition of robust and democratic discussion. This is why Corona Contract has said that we must organise the meeting of striking branches ourselves. This meeting will now take place online at 6pm on Wednesday 23rd February. Liverpool UCU, arguably the most battle-hardened and organised branch in our union following their successes in defending jobs, has agreed to host. 

At this meeting, we urgently need to make decisions on three crucial aspects of the dispute. These are: 1. What timetable of action do we need to build towards indefinite all out strike? 2. How will we approach the issue of reballots? 3. How do we respond to the USS negotiation?

Many branches have understandably called for new branch delegate meetings and special conferences, and we support these calls. But given our experience of the bureaucratic nature of these meetings, we must go into them with a unified position on what action must be taken and when. Employers will be going hard against us and more entrenched than ever. We’ve taken national industrial action every single year over the past five years, in 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021 and now 2022. While this demonstrates the increasing industrial muscle of our union, bosses will be wanting to break us and to permanently take the issues we are striking for off the table. We can’t let them do this. We need to build the biggest possible action for the future of higher education.

NEC Elections: Vote for Fighting Left Candidates

Part of the reason that we are in the situation that we are in is a result of the failure of the elected leadership body of these disputes. We have outlined previously our criticisms of the existing political groupings on the NEC. UCU members should think hard about the role that elected representatives have played, particularly as NEC elections have just opened. 

While Socialist Alternative are not standing candidates this year, we encourage UCU members to vote for fighting left candidates who are clear that they are willing and able to play a role in building the fighting lay leadership that we need in our union. Socialist Alternative members will be supporting many UCU Left candidates in these elections, and we particularly encourage votes for Peta Bulmer, Dharminder Singh Chuhan and Chris Jones. We believe it is imperative that we elect a left Vice President for FE, and we will be backing the UCU Left candidate Juliana Ojinnaka. But we also encourage votes for independent left candidates who have a track record of supporting democratic rights and industrial militancy. We particularly encourage votes for UCU Edinburgh President Grant Buttars, Kyran Joughin, and also Pete Wood and Rhian Keyse who we work with in the Corona Contract campaign.  

When considering who to vote for, we believe that the key question members should ask candidates is how they can be part of building a fighting democratic lay leadership within our union.


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